film production + social action

Libya and Sudan: Looking Backwards and Moving Forward

By Bree Barton

As tensions mount in North Africa, all eyes are on Libya. What began as a relatively organized opposition in February quickly spread in size and intensity, and Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s responded with deadly violence. Almost overnight, Libya has become the world’s newest hotbed of political unrest and humanitarian concern.

The good news is that the world is getting wiser. In the early 1990s, brewing ethnic tensions in Rwanda pointed to an imminent massacre, but the international community failed to heed the call to action. As a result, 800,000 innocent people were murdered over a mere 100 days in 1994.

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Nearly two decades later, it’s a different story. Events in Libya have spurred a swift international response. The U.N. Security Council invoked Chapter VII and issued Resolution 1973, calling for “all necessary measures” to ward off a massacre. As Qaddafi ’s tanks moved toward Benghazi, French warplanes arrived at the eleventh hour to implement a no-fly zone. According to the NYTimes, “On March 19, American and European forces began a broad campaign of strikes against Colonel Qaddafi and his government, unleashing warplanes and missiles in a military intervention on a scale not seen in the Arab world since the Iraq war.”

The Obama administration has been deeply involved. I have a Libyan friend myself; I sent him a Facebook message to make sure he and his family were all right. He responded, “My family is fine. Thank you, America and Obama—you are very kind to help us.”

And yet, in the wake of U.S. involvement in Libya, some activists have expressed frustration and disappointment. It’s great that the administration has suddenly made Libya a priority, they say. But why have they never done the same for Sudan?

The traumas and tragedies of Sudan, which have been unfolding for the last twenty years (long before “Darfur” became a catchword on college campuses), need not be recounted here. Millions have been killed against a backdrop of war and mass atrocities, and countless more maimed, lost, and displaced. The country teeters on the brink of civil war yet again, despite the excellent work of many humanitarian agencies and the international community at large.

So why have we not rushed to Sudan’s aid in the same way we have for Libya? Or, to pick one particular issue that has raised questions and eyebrows, why has the U.N. not instigated a no-fly zone in Sudan?

As is often the case, this issue is not as black-and-white as it appears. The backlash to the comparisons between Libya and Sudan are perhaps even more spirited than the comparisons themselves. The parallel between these two very different countries is a false one, for precisely that reason: they’re two very different countries. Each international political crisis is devastatingly idiosyncratic and complex, and to apply a “One size fits all” solution is a surefire recipe for disaster.

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Take, for example, the intricate implications of implementing a no-fly zone in Darfur. As Allyson Neville-Morgan points out in her blog, Peace of the Blogosphere, the airports being used to conduct aerial attacks in Sudan are the same ones being used to provide humanitarian assistance. A no-fly zone would effectively knock out the international community’s ability to provide food, medicine, and aid workers to Darfuris—all of which are imperative to their survival.

Of course, many Darfuri refugees and activists would have liked to see a no-fly zone back in 2005—and indeed, many called for one. Why didn’t we implement a no-fly zone before so many lives were lost, before the system of humanitarian aid became literally life-or-death?

But looking in the rearview mirror is only helpful if we use that knowledge to create change in the present. Instead of pointing fingers and rehashing old complaints, let’s concentrate on the work ahead of us. We can take great comfort in knowing that the anti-genocide movement has been extremely instrumental in the way the international community has responded to Libya. Bit by bit, we’re getting better at rapid crisis response.

As Americans, we can be proud that we have an administration less likely to stick its head in the sand than previous administrations. They’re taking their Responsibility to Protect (R2P) seriously, with a newly created international coalition to prove it. And we continue to work toward getting the U.S. to join the ICC—the sooner we can become an active part of shaping international law (and punishing its offenders), the better.

Yes, there’s still much work to be done. But right now, with Libya on the front pages, the world is paying attention. That’s no small feat. It’s a step in the right direction for all the people who have dedicated their lives to bringing peace to Sudan, and Burma, and Congo, and anywhere else where the future remains to be written. Together, let’s pick up the pen.